The Meaning of Metacognition

  • The Meaning of Metacognition

What if students could better plan their work and monitor their learning as they go, before skillfully evaluating what they have learnt? Not only that, what if those very same students were well motivated and could keep themselves going through difficult challenges? I think every teacher would be happy with that. So what is the answer to this learning nirvana? Metacognition of course.

The evidence is convincing. The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) Toolkit cites metacognition as one of the highest impact approaches for teaching and learning. It makes an estimate that it has an average impact of eight additional months gained in learning time. Any approach to learning that has such a high impact, with such a low cost, should give us pause for attention.

So why then is it not in the forefront of teaching and learning? Sometimes teacher training is rammed full of jargon. So much so, that we can begin to become immune to it and even dismiss it. Metacognition sounds fuzzy – like some educational fad blowing through INSET days.

If it is as useful and important as the evidence says, however, then we had better know what it actually looks like in the classroom. We can all nod along sagely - ‘Yes - getting students to think about their thinking - of course. I do that all the time’ – but identifying what it is in concrete terms is a little trickier. We need to get beneath the terminology and break it down into manageable steps for a busy teacher.

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Metacognition is important because it can provide students with crucial strategies to apply when they are learning in pretty much any classroom context. First, this thinking about thinking starts with high quality planning. Our novice students too often neglect this important stage. We need to slow them down, and break things down, so they can reach a deeper level of understanding of what they need to do.

It can be devilishly hard to get a young student to plan a piece of extended writing, for example, but persevere we must. We need to explicitly model learning and thinking using graphic organisers, like concept maps, flow charts and Venn diagrams. They help clarify and better structure the thinking of our students.

Secondly, they need to monitor their work. Students need to continue this process of thinking hard through each stage of their learning. This could take the form of well-structured note taking in an A level Economics lesson (my favoured approach is the ‘Cornell method’), or a project checklist in a KS3 Design Technology lesson. If a checklist is an essential tool for airline pilots, surgeons and skyscraper designers then they can surely work for my students.

Finally, they finish. We all exhale and move forward… just after we get students to check, think and thoroughly evaluate their work. Again, slowing students down and reflecting on what they have done is essential, but we instinctively skip past this stage. We need students to proof read, to consult their checklist and to truly evaluate their learning. The gains for our students, just as the EEF evidence shows us, can be hugely significant.

So metacognition is something like a simple three step process: plan, monitor and evaluate. Get our students taking those steps carefully is the goal.

Give them a goal

Of course, motivation matters. When we get thinking about our thinking, we need to consider how to learn, but we also need a boost to give us the motivation to learn. A concerted focus on metacognition can help students better recognise pitfalls along the way and by asking questions of themselves like ‘what do I need to do when I am stuck’, they can better resist the temptation to give up. Students need support with strategic thinking when dealing with failure and they need goals to drive them forward.

I can see it now. Young James, in his English lesson, is planning his next piece of narrative writing. He is guided to use a timeline for his narrative structure. Then he composes a checklist of writing strategies to remind himself about what will put rocket fuel into his writing. The writing itself becomes the easy bit.

When James thinks he is finished, he looks back at his checklist and realises he has missed a crucial strategy. He then consults his timeline to see if he has veered from his plot. Finally, he proof reads every single definitely with defiance – just so he doesn’t slip with spelling!

Is it good enough? James then self-assesses his writing, and that of his peers, draining every ounce of learning from the outcome that he can.

It is clear that metacognition is more than just edu-jargon. It is the fundamental stuff of good learning. It just requires skillfully structured teaching; so now it is time to have a good think about yours.